People For the American Way has been stressing the enormous importance of the Supreme Court in the next election, emphasizing that if Mitt Romney is elected, he has promised to nominate extreme right-wing judges who will limit our civil liberties and rescind equality measures. In a new ad, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren echoes these concerns, warning that a Senate dominated by Republicans has the potential to approve a justice that would help overturn Roe v. Wade. Warren’s opponent Scott Brown has already voiced his support for Justice Antonin Scalia, naming the ultra-conservative judge as his favorite on the Supreme Court. We cannot afford to elect candidates like Mitt Romney or Scott Brown, who are sure to nominate and confirm justices that will take us back in time and turn back the progress we have made on behalf of women’s rights, worker’s rights, voting rights, and more.
A conservative George H. W. Bush nominee on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals authored a strong decision today declaring section 3 of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Earlier this year, a federal district court judge in Connecticut, that one a Bush-43 nominee, also declared the law unconstitutional. So did a unanimous panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case before the 2nd Circuit was that of Edith Windsor, an octogenarian in New York who lost her wife in 2009; they had been together for forty years. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Windsor, described her case in a press release this summer:
Windsor and Spyer lived together for more than four decades in Greenwich Village. Despite not being able to marry legally, they were engaged in 1967. In 1977, Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Windsor helped her through her long battle with that disease. They were finally legally married in May 2007.
When Spyer died in 2009, she left all of her property to Windsor. Because they were married, Spyer's estate normally would have passed to Edie as her spouse without any estate tax at all. But because of DOMA, Windsor had to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes. Payment of the federal estate tax by a surviving spouse is one of the most significant adverse impacts of DOMA since the amount owed, as was true in this case, is often quite substantial.
"Edie Windsor, who recently celebrated her 83rd birthday, suffers from a serious heart condition," said Roberta Kaplan, a partner at Paul Weiss and counsel to Windsor. "Because the District Court's ruling in her favor is entitled to an automatic stay of enforcement, Edie cannot yet receive a refund of the unconstitutional estate tax that she was forced to pay simply for being gay. The constitutional injury inflicted on Edie should be remedied within her lifetime."
The 2nd Circuit opinion leaves no ambiguity as to the discriminatory harm done by section 3 of DOMA. Ian Millhiser at Think Progress pulls out this paragraph of the decision:
[W]e conclude that review of Section 3 of DOMA requires heightened scrutiny. The Supreme Court uses certain factors to decide whether a new classification qualifies as a quasi-suspect class. They include: A) whether the class has been historically “subjected to discrimination,”; B) whether the class has a defining characteristic that “frequently bears [a] relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” C) whether the class exhibits “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group;” and D) whether the class is “a minority or politically powerless.” Immutability and lack of political power are not strictly necessary factors to identify a suspect class. Nevertheless, immutability and political power are indicative, and we consider them here. In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.
That’s an unambiguous indictment of DOMA and of all laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, House Speaker John Boehner, who has now spent $1.5 million taxpayer dollars in an attempt to defend DOMA, is likely to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. But the easier option, as PFAW president Michael Keegan points out in a statement today, would be for Congress just to repeal DOMA. It’s done enough harm to millions of people like Edie Windsor, and its effects will become clearer as more and more gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry, and find that their marriages aren’t recognized by the federal government.
Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a landmark case that could determine whether public colleges and universities can consider race as one of many factors when making admission decisions. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher, a white woman, alleges that the University of Texas discriminated against her based on her race when she was not admitted to the University of Texas in 2008. Should the Supreme Court choose to rule in favor of Fisher and rescind equality measures that were upheld by the Court just nine years ago in Grutter v. Bollinger, public colleges and universities would lose their ability to ensure a diverse student body.
People For the American Way, along with many proponents of affirmative action, rallied in front of the Supreme Court, stressing the necessity of diversity and inclusiveness in higher education. Champions of fairness and racial equality spoke, reflecting upon their own educational triumphs as a result of affirmative action and warning against a color-blind perspective that the Supreme Court may uphold. Speakers emphasized that individuals are multi-faceted, and cannot be judged solely by an SAT score or a GPA.
Speakers at the rally emphasized that a student must be evaluated wholly as an individual. A person’s race and ethnicity is part of their background and part of what they offer to the diverse university community, just like their athletic abilities or legacy family roots.
While people of color have made great strides in closing the education gap, disparities in higher education remain widespread. Colleges and universities must foster diversity and represent the vast spectrum of aspiring students and professionals. This will only enhance ingenuity, bridge the racial divides of our history, and preserve America’s platform of fairness and justice.
This is Justice Antonin Scalia, who Mitt Romney and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown both hold up as their model Supreme Court Justice, discussing his approach to some thorny Constitutional issues:
"The death penalty? Give me a break. It's easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state”
Looking forward to seeing your rights eliminated with “ease” by the Supreme Court? We have just the candidate for you.
On CNN’s website today, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin laments out how small a role the Supreme Court has played in the presidential election so far. He writes:
With a little more than a month to go, it's not too late to ask the candidates to take a stand on their plans for the court. The president has already had two appointments, and he named Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But what does Obama, a former law professor, think about the court? Does he believe in a "living" Constitution, whose meaning evolves over time? Or does he believe, like Justices Scalia and Thomas, that the meaning of the document was fixed when it was ratified, in the 18th century.
By the same token, what kind of justices would Romney appoint? Who are his judicial role models? Romney has praised Chief Justice John Roberts, but is the candidate still a fan even after the chief voted to uphold the ACA?
No one is asking these questions. But there are few more important things to know about our current and future presidents.
Toobin is absolutely right that the candidates’ plans for the Supreme Court deserve a lot more air time than they’re getting. But he’s wrong to suggest that we know nothing about what President Obama and Governor Romney have in mind for the Court.
President Obama has already picked two Supreme Court justices. Both, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, have been strong moderates, balancing out the retro extremism of Justices Scalia and Thomas. When female Wal-Mart employees wanted to band together to sue their employer for pay discrimination, Sotomayor and Kagan stood on the side of the women’s rights, while Scalia and Thomas twisted the law to side with the corporation. When Justices Thomas and Scalia ruled that a woman harmed by a generic drug couldn’t sue the drug’s manufacturer in state court, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan stood up for the rights of the consumer.
Mitt Romney obviously hasn’t had a chance to pick a Supreme Court justice yet, but he’s given us a pretty good idea of who he would choose if given the opportunity. On his website, Romney promises to “nominate judges in the mold of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the health care reform case, Romney announced he had changed his mind about Roberts, who declined to destroy the law while still writing a stunningly retrogressive opinion redefining the Commerce Clause.
And, of course, Romney sent a clear signal to his conservative base when he tapped Robert Bork to advise him on legal and judicial issues. Bork’s record, and what he signals about Romney’s position on the Supreme Court, is chilling:
Romney’s indicated that he would want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He’s even attacked the premise of Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision that prohibited states from outlawing birth control by establishing a right to privacy.
Yes, the candidates should be made to answer more questions about their plans for the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. But there’s a lot that we already know.
(For more, check out PFAW’s website RomneyCourt.com.)